On Animal Crossing and native UX

Nintendo (of Australia) has revealed that Animal Crossing: New Horizon will only support one island per console. Different cartridge? Same island. Different user account? Same island. This obviously reads as some money-grabbing garbage (that they’re releasing a special edition Switch alongside the game doesn’t help), but there’s another issue here that I feel will largely go untouched-upon.

Using a computer these days is a horrible mess, and to me this is largely due to the use of non-native UI widgets. Buttons, menus, scrollable views, they’re increasingly different from app to app. This has always been a problem on Windows (if anything, it’s probably gotten better on Windows over time), became more of a problem on Linux after a bunch of disparate desktop environments offered up devs a bunch of disparate sets of widgets, and it’s become increasingly bad on macOS with devs opting for rapid cross-platform solutions built with web tech and the like. Likewise, iOS seemingly has no rules these days, and on the rare occasion I’m forced to use Android, I experience no semblance of consistency. First-parties are just as much to blame as outside developers; iTunes was always a playground for Apple’s UI/UX folks, as was Office for Microsoft (and both largely forced their own paradigms on the other’s respective platform as well). There’s an argument to be made about knowing a piece of software instead of knowing two or three different operating systems through-and-through; I think this argument is hot trash, only barely applicable in highly-specialized, single-application environments (my past experiences with the inscrutable UI of Maya comes to mind).

This is something that I’ve been angrily opposed to for years, but what does it have to do with Animal Crossing? The Switch is, from a user standpoint, a relatively simple closed system. Aside from certain conventions (think, Start pulling up a pause menu1) video games have always been kind of a free-for-all. Largely, the user is only presented with a few options outside of gameplay – starting a game, saving or loading a game, setting options related to audio, video, accessibility, &c, and these can all be accomplished with self-explanatory menu items and the like2.

It’s worth noting that the Switch (and other modern consoles) do have native widgets, like the touch keyboard for text entry3. And, due to limitations, there are also other native solutions that are a core part of the experience. Inexplicably lacking a mechanism for on-cartridge game saves, part of the solution for all saves being held on-system is a multi-user environment. In standard practice, this is straightforward – launching a game asks who you are playing as, which dictates how save states are handled. When ports of games that have existing save mechanisms ignore this, it sucks, but is understandable. It is patently absurd for first-party software to opt out of something so elegantly implemented. I don’t know if Nintendo really expects families to buy all of their children Switch Lites so they can all have their own animal islands; it almost wouldn’t surprise me if families’ inabilities to do so hurt sales. Even if there’s a reason beyond greed, technological or otherwise, failing to prioritize native UX makes things worse for everyone. It makes users less engaged with experiences that are core to a system, and it makes developers feel less pressure to give a crap about the models they should theoretically be following.

  1. On more recent Nintendo systems like the Switch, this is of course +, but the point still stands that it’s a de facto standard. Notably, Pokémon Sword/Shield goofed this one up. ↩︎
  2. Obviously some games, for narrative or challenge reasons, obscure things like saving inside of actual gameplay. But that’s understood to be an aspect of video games, and as a solution is not unexpected. ↩︎
  3. Despite presumably being all Unicode, many ports don’t let you use symbols from the native keyboard in your player name, &c. While not an egregious violation, I’m always frustrated that I can’t be named ❤bri❤. ↩︎